War on terrorism and drug trafficking: ICTs to decide the winner?

Friday, 12 April 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


Police Anti-Narcotic Bureau of Sri Lanka, for the past few months, seized more consignments of illegal drugs perhaps than the total amount it must have been seizing since its establishment in 1973. 

We should feel thrilled because, on one hand, it reflects the improving efficacy of our law enforcing agencies. On the other hand, it also indicates a dangerous trend. Sri Lanka’s market for hard drugs is not too large. A 2017 study by the National Dangerous Drugs Control Board estimates about 45,000 heroin users in the island. Assuming their aggregate daily requirement to be about 4 kg, the local heroin market cannot be more than 1,500 kg per year. So it is apparent, the large consignments are not for local market, but we are increasingly becoming a transit hub for heroin and cocaine. 

Given Sri Lanka’s geographical proximity to the Golden Triangle (covering areas of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam) and the Golden Crescent (Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan), the two largest opium-producing regions in the world since the 1950s, this is to be expected to happen sooner or later.

In 1980s, United States, the world’s richest and most powerful nation then found it so hard to fight with the Cocaine cartel of Colombia competently led by Pablo Escobar, ‘The King of Cocaine’. At the height of this illegal but lucrative business 70 to 80 tons of cocaine were being estimated shipped from Colombia to the US monthly. Now, think, if US found it so hard, how hard it could be to a tiny nation with less than one twentieth of its economical size to fight against ever-powerful Asian drug barons?

This could be one instance that ‘Heen Seraya’ of our relatively small police force becomes essential. And part of that ‘Heen Seraya’ could be the gamut of applications recently introduced under the umbrella of Information and

Communication Technologies.

In fact, war on drug trafficking has been a parallel to, and in the process has learnt many tricks from a similar war, i.e. war against terrorism. Sri Lanka’s war against terrorism has been a shining example how technology could have been used to fight ‘bad guys’. The conflict has been prolonged for decades, as the security forces could not fight the relatively higher degree of technology of the terrorists. They could not track Prabhakaran’s satellite phone with the technology they had. Then the armed forces used the ceasefire break to update their long outdated technology in all fronts. Not many know how critical that exercise has been in eventually winning the war.  

We see ample examples of this new warfare in ‘war on terror’ in USA. Remote warfare is their growing and dominant method of choice. Both armed and reconnaissance drones have been used by the USA to target terrorists for over a decade. The same methods, in particular, mass surveillance by drones, have also been increasingly used in the last decade in the global ‘war on drugs’, for similarity of these two operations.

Use of technology is by no means confined to mass surveillance. For example, over two decades, the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) of USA have amassed logs of virtually all telephone calls from there to over 100 countries linked to drug trafficking in order to track drug cartels’ distribution networks operating within USA. One must also remember how, at lesser level, Sri Lankan armed forces used the same technologies to track down terrorist networks over 10 years back.

Solutions in unexpected packages

Interestingly, these very visible approaches are not the only means to crack down drug trafficking and terrorism. Sometimes the solutions come in the form of most unexpected packages. Take payment systems, for instance. Who would think the proliferation of e-payment systems could fight terrorism and drug trafficking? In reality, it does. 

Peter Sands, a former banker turned Harvard academic had studied how the use of large denomination notes (against e-payment systems) can encourage terrorist and drug trafficking activities. Two of the biggest drivers of illegal financial flows are those two. Those who are engaged in both businesses conduct their transactions almost always in cash. If governments take stern steps to reduce the cash in circulation, encouraging the large value transactions to happen over e-payment systems the illegal financial flows will naturally dry in time. In fact, after a key terrorist attack in 2015, that involved terrorists killing 89 concertgoers in a major theatre in Paris, European Central Bank took special measures to phase out the Euro 500 note from circulation. Such a move cannot be forced without the development of e-payment systems.

We take e-payment systems seriously. They come in the heart of multiple projects currently happening both at ICTA and Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology. Had we lived in an ideal world, some of these projects should have been operational by now. We hadn’t. So now we make serious attempts to make them happen. Our key intention is the convenience of the people. If the same measures ensure us a terror-free and drug-free society that would be an additional bonus. 

A somewhat related development currently happening locally is the new cyber security act, which is in pipeline right now. Ministry of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology plans on enacting the Cyber Security Act within the next three months in an ambitious drive to protect cyberspace and citizens from emerging cyber threats. The Act will also provide for the establishment of a high level security agency for Sri Lanka and empower Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SL-CERT). 

With the new Cyber Security Act coming into force, the country would be able to make cyberspace healthier and action taken against those committing cybercrimes. In a parallel development, the Data Protection Act will ensure the protection of intellectual property, privacy or data protection. These per se might not fully stop the bad guys. We know they are too smart and stubborn for that. Still, we are sure, these will help. Seriously. 

(Ajith P. Perera is the Minister of Digital Infrastructure and Information Technology and Chanuka Wattegama is a business writer.)